I'm concerned over the potential for legalism in my church because we are organized under a constitution and by-laws. Although I recognize the necessity for organization, I wonder if our particular method is an imposition of man's government (and, therefore, man's traditions) on Christ's body. Obviously there was organization in the early church (bishops, deacons, etc.), but I don't find any specific guidance on organizing the body. Is this left for the individual, local churches to decide what's best?


Generally, constitutions and by-laws include documents that are useful to the normal function of the church (statements of faith, forms of government, rules of discipline, orders of worship, secular corporate papers, etc.). When churches agree on these basic "ground rules," it saves them the incredibly hindering trouble of having to "re-invent the wheel" whenever they need to accomplish anything. Moreover, most conservative churches believe that the information included in their constitutions is either taught or implied by Scripture. This is especially true with statements of faith, and most often true with forms of governement and orders of worship. Whether or not we agree with the particular constitution of any given church, it is generally true that the broad intention of the constitution is to summarize Scripture's teaching, not to augment it. Certainly, most constitutions inlcude specific rules beyond Scripture's clear teaching, and beyond good and necessary reasoning therefrom. Still, even in these areas the constitutions of conservative Evangelical churches do not consciously contradict scriptural principles or teaching.

Further, the imposition of human traditions is not in and of itself legalism. Many human traditions are, in fact, biblically acceptable. For example, it is human tradition and not biblical mandate that we preach sermons in church on Sunday, that we have choirs, that we offer Sunday school classes, that we provide nurseries during services, that we hire worship directors, that we use hymnals or projectors while singing, that the corporate church itself owns or rents space in which to meet, that we provide seating in church, that we turn on the lights during church services, that we have pulpits and church directories and ushers and mats on which to wipe our feet. It is even human tradition and not biblical teaching that Christians own Bibles. These practices do not violate any biblical principles, and are not legalistic, but are useful and helpful in the life and ministry of the church.

The foregoing notwithstanding, there are times when constitutions and by-laws may be used as legalistic devices. This most often results, however, not from their existence or specific composition, but rather from their improper application. These uninspired documents become legalistic tools whenever they: 1) are treated with the authority of Scripture; 2) are used to support courses of action contrary to scriptural mandate or advice; or 3) bind believers consciences beyond the bounds imposed by Scripture. To use a hypothetical example, the constitution of my church includes the Westminster Confession of Faith. If my church were to insist that a member had to affirm every tenet of that Confession without exception in order to partake of the Lord's Supper, we would be acting in a very legalistic manner. We would be refusing biblically mandated Christian fellowship, and fencing the table on an unbiblical ground.

As far as the organization of church government (bishops, deacons, discipline, authority, etc.) is concerned, the Bible actually has much to say and to imply (often in places you might not think to look*) -- though Christians have long disagreed over the interpretation of some of these passages. Personally, I believe the biblical evidence supports a presbyterian form of governement -- rule by a plurality of elders, who must meet certain biblical qualifications. In my opinion, there is sufficient evidence the words "bishop," "elder/presbyter," "overseer" and "pastor" all described the same ruling office, and that deacons were non-ruling church servants who also had to meet biblical qualifications. In this regard, I take as instructive the existing form of government in the New Testament with which the apostles worked and of which they seem to have approved.

*Acts 2:46; 6:1-7; 11:29-30; 14:1-7,20-23; 15:1-36,41; 16:4-5; 18:23; 20:7,17-18,28,33-34
Romans 16:17
1 Corinthians 4:1-5; 5:1-13; 9:14; 14:26-28,34-35,40; 16:1-2
2 Corinthians 5:20-21; 11:9-12
Galatians 1:10; 6:6
Ephesians 4:11-16
Philippians 1:1; 4:15-16
1 Thessalonians 5:12-14,17; 2:4-9
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
1 Timothy 2:7; 3:1-13; 4:14; 5:9-18,22
2 Timothy 2:2; 4:5
Titus 1:4-9
Hebrews 13:7,17
1 Peter 4:10; 5:1-3

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.